Before taking questions Wednesday at the first White House media briefing since President Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cut the tension with a disarming shout-out.
“In addition to all of the big news happening at the White House today, it is also my daughter Scarlett’s fifth birthday,” Sanders announced. “And since I am here,” she continued, gesturing to the podium, “and you guys aren’t, I get to wish Scarlett a happy birthday. And with that, I think her first birthday wish would probably be that you guys are incredibly nice.”
Sanders still got tough questions, but her quip about a birthday wish drew a laugh from the assembled journalists. The moment exemplified Sanders’s ability to lower the temperature in situations where her boss, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, tends to run hot.
Wednesday’s briefing was only Sanders’s second, but reporters already have noticed the difference.
Sanders obfuscates same as Spicer. Also does it without making deeply personal, petty, condescending.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) May 10, 2017
Sarah Sanders parries, spins and obfuscates, too. But she's not condescending and seems comfortable at the podium doing it.
— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) May 10, 2017
Sarah Sanders is not as directly combative as Spicer but she slips in plenty of snark at press during the briefings.
— David Nakamura (@DavidNakamura) May 10, 2017
To be clear: Sanders doesn’t give journalists the warm and fuzzies. These are not glowing reviews. But they are a tip of the hat to Sanders for keeping her cool under pressure and at least delivering her snark with a deft touch, rather than a cudgel.
Consider contrasting scenes that played out in the aftermath of Comey’s firing.
In many media sessions, there is one big question that a White House spokesperson does not want to answer, so reporters try to squeeze out drops of insight by asking variations of the big question over and over. That’s the game.
Sanders played the game with poise on Wednesday. “Not to sound like a broken record,” she said, “but since you guys keep asking the same questions, I guess it’s only fair that I keep giving the same answers.”
In a gaggle with reporters the night before, however, Spicer displayed “clear frustration with getting the same questions over and over again,” according to The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson, who in a colorful report on the White House’s response described an unusual episode involving Spicer:
After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the bushes behind sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged.
“Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,” he ordered. “We’ll take care of this. ... Can you just turn that light off?”
Under pressure, Spicer seemed rattled, while Sanders seemed in-control. CNN's Jim Acosta reported Wednesday afternoon that Trump was displeased by Spicer’s performance the previous night.
WH sources: Highest levels incl. POTUS evaluating Sanders subbing for Spicer in briefing room. Last night an "embarrassment.. disaster."
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) May 10, 2017
The network quickly followed up with a report that Spicer had been benched in favor of Sanders for the rest of the week. The White House attributed Spicer’s upcoming absence to Navy Reserve duty. Spicer was on reserve duty last week.
On the bright side, for Spicer, his hiatus might deprive comedian Melissa McCarthy, who is hosting “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, of new material with which to skewer him. On Wednesday afternoon, just before Sanders filled in for Spicer at the daily briefing, “SNL” tweeted a preview.